Thousands unite in grief as Robert is laid to rest

THE bells of the Holy Rosary Church tolled 12 times as Robert Holohan's body was placed in the ground on Saturday: once, it seemed, for every year of his young life and once for a birthday he will never have.

Midleton, the East Cork town which has been thrust unwillingly into the national spotlight over the last week or two, shut down for the funeral of the youngster.

The streets were lined with thousands of people as a garda motorcyclist led the cortege through the centre of the town. Approximately 3,000 mourners crammed into the church and grounds as the majority of the town's businesses ceased trading as a mark of respect for the family.

Many of those who attended did not know the 11-year-old Midleton CBS schoolboy or his family, but many were among the 1,000 who helped search for him. The young and old, gardaí, members of the Defence Forces and politicians all gathered for the service. Cork hurler Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Robert's sporting hero, read one of the prayers of the faithful.

As President Mary McAleese, in a message read out at the funeral, said: "The stranger has become a neighbour."

In his address, piped via a loudspeaker to the mourners outside, parish priest Fr Billy O'Donovan described receiving a telephone call from the garda who had the lonely job of guarding Robert's body as he lay in the undergrowth at Inch Strand last Wednesday night.

The unnamed garda, from Cork city, said: "Because of the circumstances, only one of us could be with Robert at a time. I'd like the parents to know that Robert was not alone last night and that I spoke to him all the time. I just wished that I had a blanket to wrap round him."

'Unreal' was how one person described Saturday afternoon. After the funeral Mass, under a sky of grey and blue, thousands of mourners watched in silence as the small white coffin was carried from the church. The procession was led by a large number of priests, including Fr O'Donovan and the Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee.

Behind them came the pallbearers, led by Robert's father Mark. Then Majella Holohan and her eight-year-old daughter Emma, clutching each other as they walked. Another son, four-year-old Harry did not attend the funeral.

Robert, the livewire lad who loved hurling, football and ponies, made his final journey at 4.30pm, 12 days after he sped off from home on his brand-new BMX bike and vanished.

Majella and Mark remained at the graveside for some time after their son's body was lowered to the ground. Their grieving had only just begun.

'We can only imagine your suffering, pain and loss'

Funeral Mass for Robert Holohan, Holy Rosary Church, Midleton, January 15 2005:

JANUARY 4, 2005, will long live in our memories. It was the day that at 2.30pm in the afternoon, Robert Holohan, on his new BMX and armed with his new mobile phone, set off to meet his friends. I imagine that a young lad as exuberant as Robert would have tested the bike out down Ballyedmond Hill.

He would have come out from his beautiful home and surroundings in idyllic countryside. Taking the back road to the golf club, you can imagine him sweeping round that bend into the tiny road. What happened next we do not know, but Robert vanished.

Later that evening, concern grew and this was to begin nine harrowing days for Mark and Majella and family, neighbours and quickly the whole community. News that Robert had gone missing sparked off the biggest search this country has seen, with gardaí, rescue services, the Army, the whole community and wider involved. Here in this church, we prayed continually for Robert's safe return. For days the search yielded nothing but what we were becoming increasingly fearful of became reality on Wednesday with the news of the discovery at Inch. January 4, 2005, will be recalled and remembered for many years.

One of my prayers is that today, January 15, will also be recalled. Because today we gather around Robert as family, community and friends - and with the support and the prayers of the whole nation. Mark and Majella chose today to do what is right for Robert. They must then start the long journey of looking to the future and putting their lives back together again. This reflects the courage they have shown through this harrowing time.

During the past 12 days, we have witnessed and experienced something very special. We began to see again the immense goodness in the person next to us - the bravery, generosity, determination and sheer goodness of the thousands of people who searched; who provided refreshments on cold, wet and dreary days; the contributions from shops and local businesses who, incidentally, have today closed their doors to trading. It is a side to this tragedy to cherish, to ponder on and, above all, to build on. There is a tendency when celebrating the life of a young person that has ended, to dwell on what might have been. Maybe this is to ignore the precious years of his life.

Robert, in those short years, brought joy and exuberance through sport, through the Pony Club and through simply being Robert. But maybe today, his contribution is a far wider one. He has helped us rediscover human and Christian values that many felt have been missing. Our challenge may be to honour Robert's memory by doing everything we can to restore those values.

In a telephone call last evening, President Mary McAleese asked me to convey to the people of Midleton her commendation on the extraordinary community response. And I quote:

"Their community goodness and support has won them the hearts of the people of Ireland. This extraordinary experience of community has galvanised the whole country; what happened in your community has been a real test of community values. Midleton has responded with resilience, dignity and sheer goodness. The stranger has become a neighbour. Our prayers and the prayers of the nation are with little Robert, because we all feel that we know him. No home in Ireland has been untouched by this, so you can rest assured that the prayers of the whole nation are with you, the family and the whole community tomorrow afternoon."

Over the past days, hundreds of messages of love and support have come through. Also, the whole search effort has been truly heroic. An example of this was a phone call from Drogheda last Monday night, offering help in the search. Despite a serious weather alert, this man drove from Drogheda to join the search at first light the following day and returned that evening to Drogheda for work the next day. I'm sure there are many more examples of such heroism and to everybody who took part, your contribution was phenomenal.

On Thursday, I had a call from a garda in Cork city. He said: "If you think this is worth passing on to the family, please do. I was one of two gardaí who kept watch on Robert last night. Because of the circumstances, only one of us could be with Robert at a time. I'd like the parents to know that Robert was not alone last night and that I spoke to him all the time. I just wished I had a blanket to wrap round him."

Mark and Majella and family, this has been an extraordinarily difficult time for you. We can only imagine your suffering, your pain and your loss. But sometimes it is good to share the words of those who have suffered terrible tragedies too.

I'd like to finish by sharing with you the words of a mother who lost her daughter in the Oklahoma bombing in America.

These words were found tied to the fencing at the bomb site where her daughter was killed:

I said, "God I hurt."

And God said, "I know."

I said, "God, I cry a lot."

And God said, "That is why I gave you tears."

I said, "God, I am so depressed."

And God said, "That is why I gave you sunshine."

I said, "God, life is so hard."

And God said, "That is why I gave you loved ones."

I said, "God, it's such a loss."

And God said, "I saw mine nailed to a cross."

I said, "But God, your loved one lives."

And God said, "So does yours."

I said, "God, where are they now?"

And God said, "Mine is on my right hand and yours is in the light."

I said, "God, it hurts."

And God said, "I know."

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